Last Updated on March 29, 2022
All horse riders and lovers will agree that at times, horses can pull some very funny faces! They will sneeze, curl their lips and nuzzle their favorite humans. But what does it mean when a horse lips you?
Horses will flap their lips at humans for various reasons, and this cute behavior can be fun to watch. But we must learn how to understand horse facial expressions and what they mean. Let’s take a look at how to read a horse’s face and learn about what they might be trying to tell us.
Beginners Guide To How To Read A Horse’s Face
Horses are very different from humans because they are prey animals and we are predators. This means their facial expressions are very different from ours, as they are always on the lookout for danger. Humans and horses are two completely different species, and the way we express ourselves is very different.
The facial expressions of horses are very complex, and researchers believe that these may be almost as expressive as human facial expressions. Horses use various facial features to send signals to each other, and they may use these to try and communicate with us. Here is just a small sample of how horses use facial expressions to communicate.
One of the first things young wannabee horse riders are taught is to never go near a horse that has its ears back! A horse with its ears laid back against the head is trying to tell you that they feel threatened or uncomfortable, and this is a warning sign to back off.
A horse with its ears pricked forward is on high alert, probably listening to something in the far distance. This is how horses can identify predators from a long way away.
If a horse is relaxed, the ears will be droopy and swivel gently round to pick up noises around him.
A calm, relaxed horse will have eyes that are described as ‘soft eyes’; this means that the muscles around the eyes are relaxed. A tense or fearful horse may show the whites of his eyes and will be wide-eyed as the facial muscles are pulled tight.
Horses use their muzzles to express intimacy; for instance, they may use their lips to nuzzle or groom another horse. A horse with loose lips and a relaxed muzzle is calm and happy.
On the flip side, if a horse is tense or worried it will tighten its lips – this can make the mouth appear smaller. A young horse may chew and lick their lips as a sign of submission, to show an older more dominant horse that they are not a threat.
Understanding Horse Facial Expressions And What They Mean
It is vital that we know how to understand what horse facial expressions mean because we can then respond to them correctly. We need to know when a horse feels fearful or threatened, and also when they are enjoying a new experience.
Here are some common horse facial expressions:
- Relaxed Horse: The eyes will be soft and relaxed, and the ears will be in a semi-alert position. A relaxed horse will have a drooping lower lip and may appear almost asleep.
- Curious Horse: A curious horse will extend the head down and towards what he is investigating, and the nostrils will be flared to help the sense of smell. His ears will be pointed forward, and the eyes will be relaxed but focused.
- Nervous Horse: When a horse is nervous the muzzle will be tight and wrinkled, with the mouth tightly closed. The eyes will be open wide and may flicker backward and forwards to look for an escape route. The ears may also do the same or might be laid backward to warn off an impending threat.
What Does It Mean When You See Horse Lips Flapping?
If your horse is flapping his lips it can mean a few different things. Nervous horses may flap their lower lip if they are feeling insecure or uncertain. This is a continuation of the normal behavior of foals when they will use their mouths to show submission to older horses.
Some horses, especially stallions, will curl their upper lip up over the nostrils – this is a phenomenon known as Flehmen. They do this to seal air into the nasal cavities, helping them to investigate interesting smells.
Another gesture that horses carry out with their mouths and lips is the ‘lick and chew’ movement. They will often do this when they are thinking about something, such as a new training exercise or activity.
And finally, the most important role of the horse’s muzzle – affection and socialization!
So, what does it mean when a horse lips you? Normally, this behavior means that they love you and you are one of their gang! You have been accepted as part of his social circle, and he wants to show you that he enjoys your company.
If your horse nuzzles your face or arms with their lips they are normally demonstrating their love and affection towards you – absolutely adorable!
However, if this behavior becomes pushy or rough they may be lipping you to show dominance. If this occurs then push your horse’s muzzle away with your hand. Consider taking the horse’s training back a step or two to reinforce the basics.
Horse owners must take care that any nuzzling or lipping behavior doesn’t get out of hand, as it may turn into nipping or play-fighting. You must ensure that your horse has clear boundaries to prevent them from overstepping the mark and accidentally nipping you.
So, as we’ve learned, horses have some very complex facial expressions! Horses may flap their lips and nuzzle their owners as a sign of affection, showing that you are a valued member of their herd. This is a continuation of the natural behavior that horses show in the wild when they will nuzzle and groom each other.
We’d love to hear about your experiences – does your horse flap its lips at you regularly? Or maybe you have questions about horse facial expressions? Add a comment below this post and we’ll get back to you!
Do horses like to be talked to?
Do horses enjoy being petted? Do they like being spoken to? Horses enjoy attention as well as company. It’s important to provide a sense of comfort and companionship when you are speaking to your horse.
When people are upset, they tend to be reassured and calmed by a friendly and calm voice. It’s pretty much the same for horses. Through conversations with your horse you give him a sense of peace and a sense of trust. If your voice is soothing, it will reassure them they are safe with you. But when your horse is stressed, he needs something else: a firm voice. When he feels threatened or scared, he needs you to be calm and confident to help him to relax again.
What does it mean when a horse bows its head?
It is important to pay attention to the bow of your horse’s head. Horses are intelligent animals and they will give you clues about what they feel about something or someone.
Bowing the head while riding your horse can be interpreted as a release of anxiety. You might be surprised that a horse may also bow to you. If a horse bows to you, but then his head immediately comes back up high, it means that he’s afraid of you and he’s following your commands because of fear. On the other hand, if a horse bobs his head when he’s facing you, it means that he’s relaxed and happy. This is one of the signs of a horse who is friendly and trusting of humans.
What does it mean when a horse curls his lip up?
Horses are highly sensitive to certain smells and a Flehmen response is their natural reaction to the smell. The curling back of the upper lip and pulling their head back when smelling helps activate an organ that helps horses to sense and smell different chemical molecules in the air, specially pheromones.
In horses, the olfactory bulb (part of the brain) contains many more sensory neurons than any other mammal. This has led to the evolution of complex, intricate behaviours that allow horses to read the world around them. Horses can distinguish between the sexes of humans, different food types and even the difference between the odours of other horses and the smell of their own faeces.
Why do horses lips twitch?
The lip twitch is when your horse suddenly opens their mouth and draws back their lips, exposing their teeth. The lip twitch, which reduces a horse’s heart rate and reaction to pain, is believed to increase the release of beta endorphin, the opioid that diminishes pain.
Why does the horse’s lip twitch? The lip twitch can be a sign of pain, excitement or fear. If the lip twitch is accompanied by other signs of discomfort such as pulling at the bit or ears pinned back, then it may be a sign of pain. A horse that is excited will often open their mouth and draw back their lips. The lip twitch can also occur as part of the fear response in horses. Horses that are fearful will often have their lips drawn back, exposing their teeth.
Kate Chalmers is a qualified veterinary nurse who has specialized in horse
care for the vast majority of her career. She has been around horses since
she was a child, starting out riding ponies and helping out at the local
stables before going on to college to study Horse Care & Management. She
has backed and trained many horses during her lifetime and competed in
various equestrian sports at different levels.
After Kate qualified as a veterinary nurse, she provided nursing care to the
patients of a large equine veterinary hospital for many years. She then went
on to teach horse care and veterinary nursing at one of the top colleges in
the country. This has led to an in-depth knowledge of the care needs of
horses and their various medical ailments, as well as a life-long passion for
educating horse owners on how to provide the best possible care for their
Kate Chalmers BSc (Hons) CVN, Dip AVN (Equine) Dip HE CVN REVN RVN A1